Melanie Coughlin has taught East Asian Religions (RELI 1716 R) twice so far, and is about to begin her third iteration of the course this summer. The course has gone through many changes since she first taught it, but the core of it is the same; create an online student community around the study of East Asian religions.
The course is divided into Japanese, Chinese and Korean religions, and looks at how religions in these regions changed over time.
In their study of China, students gravitated towards discussion about funeral services.
“Kind of grim I guess, but I guess it’s something that people really relate to,” Coughlin said—all of her course’s participants were familiar with the tradition of funeral services.
Of particular interest was making offerings like money or food to the dead. Some students linked these offerings back to their own cultures, where they might have made similar offerings, continuing their relationship with deceased loved ones.
“People are interested in that because it’s not something that necessarily involves a deity, but it’s a little bit more than ordinary life,” Coughlin said. “So in a way it’s something that’s maybe more relatable.” Coughlin’s expertise is in Buddhism.
The course doesn’t just look at these practices in isolation; students also learn about how Korean Christianity came into conflict with this practice of making offerings to the dead.
For Japan, the favourite student subject was Japanese Zen Buddhism, perhaps in the interest of relieving the stress of being a student.
“People do have this idea about Zen of calming, soothing, tasteful, but actually if you look at the inside of a Zen monastery, it’s pretty intense,” Coughlin says. “You have to get up at 4 a.m., you don’t eat breakfast, you have to meditate for an hour, and then you have to do cleaning work . . . it’s very hard work and it’s very intense. That’s something a lot of students expressed surprise about.”
But the stereotype of Zen as a means of stress-relief isn’t unfounded.
“[The monks] are willing to live in this regimented, work-intensive environment is because they want to be free of stress. The idea is that stress doesn’t come from hard work and having a lot of structure in your life—it comes from excessive self-rumination and attachment to the self, and your social status,” Coughlin said. “So I guess it is a remedy for stress, but maybe not in the way that students are imagining.”
In the Korean section of the course, students learn that religious practices can be political. Korean religions have early ties to feminism. Korean female rulers would use scripture to advocate for women’s rights.
“Things like the fight for women’s rights to own property and be influential in society, this isn’t something that suddenly occurred to people in Europe in the 17th century,” Coughlin said. “This is something that has been going on for a long time.”
Coughlin’s third iteration of East Asian Religions will begin in July.
by Greg Guevara, Fourth-year Journalism, Carleton
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